A visual visit to Mars
August 4th, 2011
02:34 PM ET

Mars may have flowing saltwater, study says

Scientists have found new evidence for possible saltwater flows on Mars. The discovery was announced at a NASA news conference Thursday at the space agency's headquarters in Washington.

Alfred McEwen, lead author of the Science journal study showing these observations, and his team observed Mars using the HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. His team identified features on some planet slopes that appear to fade in the winter and come back in the spring.

These flows occur near Mars' equator in its southern hemisphere, where temperatures would be suitable for liquid water. Since Mars is about 50 million miles farther from the sun than Earth is from the sun, temperatures rarely break the freezing mark. Before the new findings, water was thought to exist in the form of ice in Mars' polar regions, and has also been detected at mid-latitudes. This is the first time there's good evidence for liquid water existing on the planet.

At the equator, summer highs can reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit (about 20 Celsius). But in the middle latitudes, where the observations disclosed Thursday were taken, temperatures range from about 32 degrees F at summer noon to overnight lows of -75 F (-60 C).

The water implicated in the new study is expected to be briny because previous study of Mars has shown that its surface is salty. The flows are finger-like and small; nowhere near the size of major rivers on Earth. They are also very narrow: 0.5 to 5 yards, or meters, wide.

Seven sites with these possible liquid flows have been confirmed on the planet, with 20 to 30 more possible, scientists said. In some locations, there are more than 1,000 individual flows.

“What makes these new observations so interesting is they occur at much lower latitudes [closer to the equator], where temperatures are much warmer and where it’s actually possible for liquid water to exist,” said Arizona State University geophysicist Phil Christensen, one of the scientists who studied the images beamed back from the orbiter.

The study does not prove water exists, but identifies it as the best explanation. It's worthwhile to think about alternative reasons for these observations, but none seems to fit as well as briny water, McEwen said.

"I think it’s going to be laboratory experiments on Earth that give us the best confirmation or refutation," he said.

The water may be more dense and viscous than what we're used to on Earth, to the point that it may appear syrup-like.

So what does this mean for life on Mars? If organisms live on the planet, they might go into a resting state during winter, if Mars does have water that flows as a liquid in warmer times and freezes at others, said Lisa Pratt, professor of geological sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington.

"It is our first chance to see an environment on Mars that might allow for the expression of an active biological process, if there is presently life on Mars,"  Pratt said.

CNN's Matt Smith contributed to this report.

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soundoff (977 Responses)
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  3. Vita Overfelt

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    December 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  4. minisheree32

    i am going to be the first person on mars. watch me fly. im only 14, but that doesnt mean anything.

    August 11, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  5. Exar Kun

    Because it bears saying again:

    Those of you who are decrying the space program as a waste of time, effort, and money need to GTFO the Internet. Throw out your PC, your cell phone, your microwave oven, rip the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors out of your house, not get a hip replacement when you get to the point where you need one, get rid of your HDTV and get an old tube TV with rabbitears (and NO DTV box either). Also dump your CDs and DVDs and stick with VHS and cassette tapes only, don't buy new sneakers, get rid of that fancy quartz-movement watch that you got for Yule, call your alarm company to get rid of your alarm system, get rid of your air conditioner, throw out your insulin pump if you're diabetic, have the underbody rust protection stripped from your car (and don't buy any other anti-rust paint either), and don't buy any more frozen meals or freeze-dried foods again, ever.

    After all, the space program is a huge boondoggle and that doesn't benefit anyone, right?

    August 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  6. WTF

    i think its funny that they see images of possible water on mars and they assume its salt water... i mean did they beam there silly nasa self down to the surface and taste it and they were like YUP ITS SALTY!? stupid nasa you dont know jack sh*t about whats on that planet...

    August 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  7. Exar Kun

    Those of you who are decrying the space program as a waste of time, effort, and money need to GTFO the Internet. Throw out your PC, your cell phone, your microwave oven, rip the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors out of your house, not get a hip replacement when you get to the point where you need one, get rid of your HDTV and get an old tube TV with rabbitears (and NO DTV box either). Also dump your CDs and DVDs and stick with VHS and cassette tapes only, don't buy new sneakers, get rid of that fancy quartz-movement watch that you got for Yule, call your alarm company to get rid of your alarm system, get rid of your air conditioner, throw out your insulin pump if you're diabetic, have the underbody rust protection stripped from your car (and don't buy any other anti-rust paint either), and don't buy any more frozen meals or freeze-dried foods again, ever.

    After all, the space program is a huge boondoggle and that doesn't benefit anyone, right?

    August 8, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
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    August 8, 2011 at 2:20 am |
  9. Robert

    I would think finding beer on Mars would be better proof of life.

    August 5, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  10. cindy

    Okay so now that man has destroyed this planet he needs to find a new one to destroy because man has an insatiable need for greed, power and control! Hello God is the creator of the earth and all of the universe and He has ultimate control over all of it!! Every knee shall bow down and every tongue shall confess the name of Jesus Christ our Lord our Savior our Redeemer Amen!!

    August 5, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  11. Colin McMahon

    Hey, 'Shell.... try it again without the two babies.

    LMFAO

    Michelle DRAMATICALLY again FAILS the Skrapie screening. Oh, "Princess!"

    August 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  12. Colin McMahon

    I just carded you guys again. Man, do you guys ever seem PISSED.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uxb6RFh3BCw&feature=related

    Why don't I believe that "I am the one" that knew what a total NUTCASE was talking about, who then called me "STEVE" ?
    Easy. Where's your "Wet area", Shuttle Program? LMFAO
    Dried up too, did it? Yeah, I went thru it first.
    The model of sympathy, that one... LOL
    The chick just HATES being carded by me... HATES it.

    August 5, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  13. james r., chief designer rosella propulsion concepts

    NASA discovers water on Mars WOW!, and only just a few weeks following President Hope putting a sleeper?, hold on it's manned spaceflight program, what a shocker!! Anyway,even water of higher degrees of salinity would not!!! be able to remain in a liquid state,due to a Mars surface atmospheric pressure of '0.5%' that of conditions here on Earth. However if?, prior NASA past evaluation of Mars atmosphere was in error??, as a result of " flawed??? " instrumention then briny water might collect on Mars surface at a pressure of 82 to 120 millibars. Perhaps President Obama got it all right with respect to a government monopoly that gets it wrong.

    August 5, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • SciGuy73

      What?

      August 5, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  14. Colin

    No thanks, I've heard this one.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z3MdpaF5U8

    Thanks anyway.

    August 5, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  15. Colin >:O ?

    Incidentally.....NO WEATHER PATTERNS COULD DO THAT! (o )(o ) ( o)( o)

    August 5, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  16. Colin

    Hey, look. NASA has adopted the Steve Jobs business model to sequestering more funds for research. Cancel the Shuttle Proggy, THEN release the tidbits to extract general interest. Hey, NASA, give us the goods guys and you wouldn't have your pockets picked. Now, if you can't see buying an iPad only to find an infuriating low amount of RAM and no FLASH (thus having to upgrade later to what was already available technologically) in THIS strategy, then maybe we should cancel Hubble for the nearsightedness ofi t all too. PS. I don't recall ANY of this in the Garden of Eden story. LMFAO

    August 5, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  17. ExIBMer

    My neigborhood is becoming a muslim slum. Thank you Sam P. from Big Blue. You take photo's with our president, then meet with leaders in India. THen send our jobs there and bring them here. Sam, YOU will reap what you sow, you arrogant POS !

    August 5, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  18. Keel Hauler

    NASA's budget has been between .5% and 1% of the national budget since the 1960's compared to about 50% spent on Social Security and Medicare. If you think using that pittance of funding towards "solving our nation's problems" will have any effect, you are sadly mistaken. Cutting NASA's budget only leaves more people out of work, including employees of the hundreds of contractor firms who build items for the space program. It's the same principle as when the major American car manufacturers needed to be bailed out: It's not just the people who make the cars who would lose their jobs, it's the people who make the car parts around the world, that sell the cars, fix them, etc.

    August 5, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  19. Gonzoaster11

    Whoa! I had no idea Mars could get so warm. 70 degrees at the equator? That's t-shirt weather.

    August 5, 2011 at 10:23 am |
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